Wall Of Limitations

This summer, my son participated in a week-long baseball camp. We knew it would be physically demanding so we spoke with the coaches before we registered him to make sure that he could rest and leave early if he needed it. It’s a phone call we have made before and will likely make many times in the future that serves two purposes. First, it helps us make sure that our son will be safe. And second, it identifies any places not willing to make accommodations for people who need them, which is not a place we want to be.

My son’s nanny took him on the first day and the coaches welcomed him to the camp. He managed to stay for half the day but then took a three-hour nap when he got home. But he had fun and he made friends. The second day was much the same with a long nap after a shortened day.

By the third day, he didn’t want to go. He was noticeably tired but he managed to make it out the door. His nanny coaxed him on to the field and, after almost thirty minutes, one of the coaches managed to finally get my son to participate. He left early again that day.

On the last day of camp, we planned to let him stay all day because they were going to play a game. His nanny made sure he took frequent breaks and he made it through the day and finished the camp with a smile.

The end of the camp coincided with the Little League World Series. I watched the grueling tournament and wondered, given how the camp went, whether my son could do anything like that. By now, I don’t have any grand vision of him playing in the major leagues, but I do want him to continue to play something that gives him joy and that makes him feel like a part of a team.

It made me think that someday we’re going to run into a wall of limitations. We’ve faced small ones before, but we’ve managed to pass them mostly by watching our son climb over them. We’ve managed to keep our distance from larger walls by adjusting our path. We swapped hockey for baseball. We learned to work around his physical and endurance issues. But we haven’t been faced with consciously confronting the difference between possibility and probability. Potential versus practical. Fantasy versus reality. We haven’t faced the wall that was once on the horizon but is now uncomfortably close.

And every day we are moving closer. It’s starting to block our view to the world behind it. I’m beginning to wonder what we will do when we reach it. Will it be too big and stop us in our tracks? Will it be too overwhelming and send us back the way we came? Or will we do what we have always done and follow our son as he finds a way to climb it, even though we know there will be an even bigger wall behind this one?

That Parent

The stories about the overly competitive sports parents are true. I’ve seen them in the stands yelling at their kids, yelling at the coaches, and yelling at the umpires. They’re the parents trying to make their kid the next Micky Mantel, or Jackie Robinson, or Randy Johnson. Or they’re the parents that felt robbed of a chance to be the star and are reliving their glory days through their children.

I never wanted to be that parent. When my son started playing hockey, it was because he wanted to. When he moved on to baseball, it was because he wanted. He loved it. I thought my great advantage was that I never played organized sports as a child so I had no delusions of fame and fortune for myself or him. He could play a sport because he wanted to without fear of it being a proxy for my unfulfilled dreams or the pressure of making it his career.

But at a recent game, I caught myself yelling at my son about his mechanics. Get your elbow up! Keep your eye on the ball! I yelled to get his attention when he wasn’t in the right position or was playing with his hat. What are you doing? Pay attention!

During one of his at-bats, I was louder than his coaches. I could see that he was anxious and overwhelmed by all the other voices coming in at him. I knew he was also nervous because he was in a hitting slump. I wanted to be louder so that he would focus on my voice because I thought that would settle him down. When he struck out, I got mad at everyone else for yelling at him and distracting him. When my wife tried to talk to me, I snapped at her. Then, it hit me.

I had become “that parent”.

I tried to convince myself that it was different. I wasn’t trying to live through him on the field or get him a contract. I thought he would be happier playing baseball if he did better and I knew he could do better. I was trying to help him stay on task and remember his steps so that he would be able to draw some enjoyment from something in his life. It was for him, not for me.

But from his perspective, his dad is yelling at him because he is doing something wrong. My son walks around apologizing for everything, anyway. I can’t help but think those things are related. Am I snapping at every little thing and making him feel in a constant state of disappointment where he feels the need to apologize all the time?

I know that that’s like. I grew up with an unhealthy expectation of perfection. I’m still struggling with it today, and I see how it limits me. I wasn’t placing expectations on my son to become a professional baseball player. I wasn’t trying to relive my youth. But I still risked ruining the game that he loves by transferring my baggage to him and, worse, watching it seep into the rest of his life, too. I desperately want to learn those lessons before it’s too late because I don’t want him to turn away from something he loves because of me. I don’t want to be “that parent” who takes the joy out of the game. Because I can’t get out of the way.

Baseball has been very good for my son. It continues to teach him how to be a part of a team. It gives him opportunities to believe in himself and work through difficult situations. It teaches him how to be a gracious winner and loser. And it shows him that he can get better at something through practice because he can see how he is better at the end of the season than he was at the beginning.

Baseball has been good for me, too. It gives me opportunities to see my son in different situations where he can fail and succeed. It shows me that he can do so much more than I think he can, and it shows me when he can’t. And it’s causing me to look inward at my issues with perfection so that I don’t make them his.

I want to do better. I think I am doing better. I hope I am doing better. Because at the end of the season, I want to see how much better I am than I was at the beginning.

Lessons From The Field

The welcome arrival of Spring brings with it sunshine, warmer weather, and baseball. Last season was incredibly special for my son and our family because of the team we were on and the experiences that my son had. At a time when my son desperately needed something to hold on to and an outlet of his own, he found it in baseball.

This season, we are on a new team but there is no reason to think his experience will be any different. We’re fortunate to be reunited with coaches who knew my son from when I coached him and the coaches’ daughter in tee-ball a few years ago. When we reached out to them to give them background on my son, they already knew about him and welcomed him wholly.

Baseball has been good for my son. It provides him with an opportunity to be around other children, to have fun, and to get better at something that he enjoys. It has been good for me, too, by giving me opportunities to step back and let my son have his own experiences, his own successes and failures, and to let him figure out from those experiences who he is and who he wants to become.

Last weekend, my son had a chance to pitch for the first time. He was excited. I was terrified. My brain immediately went to what could go wrong. His throwing accuracy is not the best. I was worried that he would be embarrassed. I was worried that he would walk everyone. I was worried that he would lose the lead and that his teammates and coaches would be disappointed. I was worried that he would like it but wouldn’t be asked to do it again.

Before the inning started, I took him to the side to get him warmed up. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t terrible. Then they called him up. As I walked him back to the field, I flooded him with instruction and advice. He threw a few more warm-up pitches with the coach and seemed to do ok, but I held my breath as the first batter came to the plate.

The thing about my son is that he likes to play the part. He’ll see a movie of a baseball player and add the drama and flourishes to what he is doing, even if it’s not appropriate for his situation. On the pitcher’s mound, he looks towards first as if he is going to pick off the runner, not understanding that in his league, the players have to stay on the bag anyway. While he is on a base, he’ll crouch way down like the player did in the Jackie Robinson movie, even though it’s not practical to run from that position. I get frustrated because I think he could do a much better job if he could just focus on the task even though many times he simply can’t. But then he also might not have as much fun.

On the mound, he threw a few strikes but a lot of balls. He walked a lot of batters and hit one. I could see him start acting instead of following his steps. I tried to get him to settle down before I realized I was likely making it worse. My frustration and anxiety were bubbling up as I watched our sizable lead shrink. The coach was finally able to put in a different pitcher and I started to think about the conversation I would have to have with my son. Should we talk about not playing the part and just focusing on doing his steps? Should we talk about how they may not ask him to pitch again? Should we talk about how he can do better?

When the inning was over, my son ran off the field with a big smile on his face. “Did you have fun?”, I asked. “That was amazing,” he said.

After the game, my son and I played catch. He threw the ball right to me every time. I asked him what was different between throwing the ball to me and pitching and he said that when he was pitching, he was nervous because everyone was watching him. I realized that I was so focused on the mechanics of pitching and trying to get him to stay out of his head that I didn’t think to check in with how he was feeling going up to the mound for the first time. I was so focused on my anxiety and my frustrations that I didn’t ask about and acknowledge his.

It’s hard. It’s hard to step back and to not be the “helicopter dad” always trying to protect him or to keep him on task. I do it with the best intentions. I want to protect him. I want to help him with the challenges his condition and the side effects of his medicine bring to his life. I felt like he needed me to do those things to function in the world, but deep down I know that it’s holding him back. He needs to be able to figure it out without me because I won’t always be here. And he needs to feel like he can do it by himself and for himself so that he develops confidence and a sense of worth. He simply can’t do that if I’m always trying to do it for him.

On the way home, I asked if he wanted to pitch again and he said “absolutely.” The coaches agreed. Because where I saw anxiety and fear and failure, they saw an amazing kid do something that he had never done before with joy in his heart and a smile on his face. They didn’t expect him to do it perfectly his first time because they know that he’ll get better with experience. They just wanted him to have fun doing it. Once I got through my own baggage, I figured out that so did I.